Do you think prayers, ceremonies, and rituals are useless? Prayer in Buddhism

I was reading Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh and the following passage made the Buddhist view of prayer very clear. Old Path White Clouds is a beautifully written historical-fiction of Buddha’s life. Leading up to the scene that caught my attention, Gautama has already found the way to enlightenment and has become the Buddha. He is now traveling around teaching what he has learned and experienced. Buddha comes across a group of people who worship fire because they believe it is the primal element from Brahma (the creator deity). Buddha has many discussions with their leader, Uruvela Kassapa, sharing his insights and teachings. The two wise men are sitting by a river having a nice chat.

The River Crossing Parable: Unveiling the Buddhist Perspective on Prayer

Uruvela Kassapa sat silently for a moment and then said, “Gautama, I know you speak only from your own direct experience. Your words do not simply express concepts. You have said that liberation can only be attained through the efforts of meditation, by looking deeply at things. Do you think that all ceremonies, rituals, and prayers are useless?”

The Buddha pointed to the other side of the river and said, “Kassapa, if a person wants to cross to the other shore, what should he do?”

“If the water is shallow enough, he can wade across. Otherwise he will have to swim or row a boat across.”

“I agree. But what if he is unwilling to wade, swim, or row a boat? What if he just stands on this side of the river and prays to the other shore to come to him? What would you think of such a man?”

“I would say he was being quite foolish!”

“Just so, Kassapa! If one doesn’t overcome ignorance and mental obstructions, one cannot cross to the other side of liberation, even if one spends one’s whole life praying.”

I think the point is clear – prayer and ceremony are not the paths to liberation and enlightenment!

Contrasting Christian and Buddhist Views on Prayer

How do Buddhist’s think of prayer? After reading this I felt I had a clear way to articulate not only my view of prayers but a Buddhist’s perspective. Contrary to the Buddhist view expressed by Thich Nhat Hanh, prayer is a central pillar of Christianity. Having grown up in a Christian household, prayers were a nightly occurrence and a major part of connecting with God. At church I’d see people surrounding a person requesting prayers and everyone would lay their hands upon them or upon one another and pray for intervention. Over 20 years, I witnessed the sincerest supplications to God, and this was good. Prayer is one of the primary activities of a “good” Christian.

It is now obvious that the idea of asking for divine intervention is not shared in Buddhism or at least not in the teachings of Buddha that I have encountered so far. I lived in Thailand for over ten years and saw people praying to Buddha for these types of wishful interventions. At the time, I thought nothing of it. I just thought Buddhists were praying to Buddha how a Christian prays to their God. But since I have read more about the early teachings of Buddhism, I believe Gautama would think this behavior is very strange. I have not read anything that says the Buddha asked his followers to pray to him. In fact, this seems antithetical to what he taught. Buddha just saw himself as a normal human and that all humans have the capacity to achieve what he achieved through their own efforts – not through prayer or worship.

This story from Thich Nhat Hanh is a great way to show the Buddhist perspective on prayer – it plays no role in spiritual or enlightenment development. I think it is useful to make a distinction between prayer and simply thinking upon something. Prayer is directed to something or someone specific and is kind of like asking for a favor – “Please God heal my child.” Many times, prayers are asking for the normal cause and effect of nature to be bent or broken to align with the request of the person praying. Whereas meditation upon something entails no belief in supernatural intervention.

Buddhism and Prayer: A Question of Ignorance

I believe that Buddhism may teach us that prayers, whether they are to heal a loved one or cross over into enlightenment, stem from ignorance. Perhaps most prayers come from the belief that there is a self that requires something. I need this. Or my mother needs that. In Buddhism, there is no self. We are simply the constant flow of arising causes and effects. What we typically think of a “self” is an illusion and in its place is a connection between everything! I won’t get into the non-self here, but the concept and subsequent shift in consciousness has had a profound effect on me.

The Nonsensical River: A Metaphor for Interconnectedness

To expand on the crossing the river tale, an enlightened person may find the idea of crossing the river nonsensical because they are the river and the river is them. They are already connected to the other side of the river. They are connected in two keyways: 1) Physically there is no boundary from the person on the bank and the bank on the other side. The boundary of skin is difficult to define when you look close enough. When viewed under a powerful microscope the molecules of your skin seem separated by vast distances, so what we usually think of as “separateness” is not as clear as we believe. Everything is connected. 2) The man on the bank is dependent on the river and the trees and course the river took to create the other bank. And everything that has led up to the man standing there and vise versa the river is there due to the same circumstances that brought the man. Everything in that moment is connected because of everything that came before. The ancient rains that nourished some stream also grew the fruit that some ape ate that is an ancestor of the man on the bank. We are not separate from everything else, we are everything else and everything else is us.

I know that got a little abstract, so I’ll try to summarize: The man on the bank is literally physically connected to the other side of the river and the man and the bank are both there in that moment as a consequence of a chain reaction of cause and effect. This, to me, makes the idea of crossing the river a trivial question, if you understand “reality”.

Human Nature and the Urge to Connect: Exploring Prayer Across Cultures

Maybe it’s simply human nature to call out to something bigger than us for help when we feel helpless. Whether that’s God, gods, animal spirits, Buddha, ancestors, or the Universe most of us reach out to something to be a balm during difficult times. I don’t think Buddha or Buddhists would look down on this behavior, it’s a natural reaction, but I can imagine a Buddhist offering the suggestion to investigate one’s mind and body when praying to understand more about this state of mind. In particular the impermanent nature of what we are suffering from and asking for relief. “This too shall pass.”

Buddhist Prayer as Meditation and Self-Development

In Buddhism, prayer is more like a form of meditation and a way to awaken your inherent inner capacities of strength, compassion, and wisdom. Buddhist prayer activities, such as the recitation of sutras, the repetition of mantras, and visualization of deities, are all about connecting with one’s own inner capacity to develop constructive emotions such as compassion, enthusiasm, and patience, and to engage in constructive actions of helping others. It’s not that Buddhists pray to Buddhas and bodhisattvas for the fulfillment of their desires, but rather for the inspiration and strength to work on themselves so that they can create their own causes of happiness and benefit others as much as possible.